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Beth McKillop: “Korea: Confucians, Buddhists, and Their Books” (RBS Lecture #608, 14 November 2016)



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Korea is a country with a remarkable book and literary history. Known in today’s world as a divided land, Korea has long been a country that revered the written word. Chinese characters and culture shaped much of traditional Korea’s education system, but the distinctive, continuous life of the book in Korea was shaped by historical events and movements that stretched far beyond China. Duplicating texts has been an important part of Buddhist practice in Korea for almost two millennia. Books were printed on paper from the earliest times, and important experiments with bronze cast types supplemented the dominant technology of woodblock printing. Every aspect of Korean book history has a material and physical dimension that illuminates the story of Korea’s past. From the preparation of woodblocks by soaking the planks in sea water before carving the texts on to them in mirror writing, to the simple methods used to produce soot ink, to the lavish gold and silver illuminated holy texts of the royal Buddhist scriptorium, books from the Koryo (918–1392) and Choson (1392–1910) dynasties bear witness to two great traditions that enriched indigenous Korean belief systems. The teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) were studied in academies known as sowon, all around the country. They formed the curriculum for the national examination system—the ladder of success in pre-modern Korea. Buddhist scriptures reached Korea after traveling eastwards through China. Reverence for the Buddha, evidenced by careful study of his teachings, has persisted until modern times.

The illustrated lecture uses books in major Western collections, particularly the British Library and the Wellcome Library, London, to introduce the remarkable bibliographic and publishing achievements of the Korean past.

Beth McKillop, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was an exchange scholar at Peking University, after studying Chinese at Cambridge. Her career has been at the British Library, as a curator of Chinese and Korean collections, and she recently left her position as deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she is now a senior research fellow. Her research has concerned Korea’s book and manuscript history, with a particular interest in technologies and physical properties of book production. She is the author of “The History of the Book in Korea” in the “Oxford Companion to the Book” (2010). Two official visits to North Korea (2001, 2002) resulted in “North Korean Culture and Society” (British Museum, 2004).